Guam swimmer far behind – but at least he finishes

Benjamin Schulte could’ve quit.

Wanted to, in fact.

”Around the second-to-last lap, I was just like, ‘Man, I’ve

still got two laps to go,”’ he said, the pain just oozing from his

voice. ”I was already completely exhausted by that time.”

No one would’ve blamed Schulte for giving up. He had been

swimming alone most of the day, the rest of the field leaving him

far behind during the men’s open water marathon at Hyde Park.

But the 16-year-old from Guam – a boy among men – didn’t want to

let down his family, or his friends, or his tiny Pacific island

homeland.

So, long after everyone else had climbed out of the water

Friday, Schulte finally touched the timing pad, more than two hours

after he started. In keeping with the true Olympic ideal that so

often gets obscured by the focus on gold medals and endorsement

deals, he had given it his best to the very end, even when his arms

were burning and he couldn’t really feel his legs anymore.

Schulte did what he came to do.

He finished.

”I just did one stroke, then I would say, ‘OK, let’s do the

next stroke,”’ he said. ”Then I was like, ‘OK, I can put my hand

up again.’ And that’s what I did.”

Over and over and over again.

Swimming just the fourth 10-kilometer race of his young life,

and knowing he had no chance to go as fast as Olympic medalists

such as Ous Mellouli and Thomas Lurz, Schulte finished about a

half-lap behind everyone else, finally touching in 2 hours, 3

minutes, 35.1 seconds.

The strapping youngster was more than nine minutes behind the

next-slowest swimmer, nearly 14 minutes behind the winner Mellouli,

who became the first swimmer to capture medals in both the pool and

open water at the same Olympics.

But, as modern Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin said (you

know, the most important thing ”is not winning but taking part”),

Schulte had no grand ambitions, no golden dreams. He knew how

fortunate he was just to be an Olympian.

”Just being given the opportunity to be here and compete here,

I didn’t want to let down all my friends and family back home,” he

said. ”I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up all the way through. I

just wanted to finish.”

New Zealand was supposed to get Oceania’s slot in the open water

event but passed it up, feeling it didn’t have anyone who would be

competitive. Schulte leaped at the chance to take it, though he

knew he would be totally outclassed by the rest of the elite,

25-man field.

His main goal was just being respectable at the start. Indeed,

he managed to keep up for about 500 meters or so. Unfortunately,

there were still 9,500 meters to go.

As everyone else pulled away, Schulte just chugged along by

himself. He was trailed by a safety official in a kayak, who made

sure the teenager didn’t get in any serious trouble and would have

to be pulled from the water by a rescue boat. In a sport known for

its tight packs and rough-and-tumble tactics, this became a race

outside the real race.

The fans lining the banks cheered when the leaders came by. Then

they cheered again, a few minutes later and even louder, when

Schulte labored by.

”I wasn’t really concerned about swimming it alone,” he said.

”I knew I was going to be swimming it alone. I just put that in

the back of my mind and accepted it and just did my best to hang in

there.”

Don’t get the idea that this was another ”Eric the Eel,” a

swimmer with no real credentials turning the sport into a bit of a

mockery. Schulte competed in last year’s world championships as a

15-year-old, taking part in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke.

But this was an entirely different kind of race, held in an iconic

royal park in the center of London, comprised of six laps around a

narrow lake known as The Serpentine.

”I like it,” Schulte insisted.

Why, exactly?

”I don’t know,” he said, smiling. ”The first four laps are

great. The last two laps are not so great.”

Schulte lives in Australia with his parents, giving him a chance

to train under noted coach Denis Cotterell. He’s in the midst of

his 11th-grade year and will return to school in early September.

He wants to attend college in the United States, listing Stanford

as his first choice and architecture as his preferred degree.

He also hopes to build on what he’s done in the water.

”I want to come back for Rio and do a little bit better,”

Schulte said. ”We’ll see where it eventually takes me, which

events I want to do. I really do enjoy swimming breaststroke, so

we’ll see.”

He was asked how the people of Guam, a U.S. commonwealth that

competes independently at the Olympics, will view his effort. The

island of 182,000 sent only eight athletes to the London Games.

”There’s never been an open water swimmer from Guam before,”

Schulte said. ”Hopefully they’re proud of me. I know I’m proud to

be here representing my country.”

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